A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the Gulen Movement in Turkey

Outside of a small circle of Turkey watchers, and perhaps some scholars of contemporary Islam, few Americans have heard of Pennsylvania resident Fethullah Gulen and his international religious organization. Despite his relative obscurity, understanding Gulen and his organization is crucial to appreciating the nature of contemporary Turkish politics, as well as Turkish-American relations.

The AKP-Gulen Alliance

At its core, the Gulen movement is an Islamic religious organization, which has developed various civil society initiatives as well as educational, business, and media arms in support of its religiously-grounded aims. It is the group’s identity as a primarily religious organization that has allowed Gulen, until recently, to be a dominant player in Turkish civil society.

The Gulen Movement adheres to a theology that centers around the Qur’an and Sunnah, the primary sources of Sunni Islamic belief and practice, as well as the writings of two Turkish Islamic theologians and Qur’anic interpreters, Said Nursi and Fethullah Gulen. The latter of these two men is the living leader, primary inspiration for, and namesake of the group.

In 2002, when the AKP, a party of conservative politics and pious politicians, came to power, the Gulen Movement was perfectly poised to take advantage of new, more pious trends in the civic and social realms. With the political support of the AKP, Gulen affiliated businesses, media outlets, and schools expanded their influence exponentially, between 2002 and 2013. The AKP-Gulen relationship was not one sided, however. In exchange for the AKP’s support, the Movement harnessed its organizational and membership resources to promote the AKP’s political agenda.

Domestically, the Movement and the AKP worked in tandem to advance the government’s interests. Most notoriously, the two cooperated in an attempt to destroy the power of the Turkish military, which had acted as the keeper and guardian of the country’s secular elite since the death of the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. To further these efforts, someone, or more likely a group of people, planted fabricated evidence linking the military’s leadership to a planned coup against the AKP government.

While it is unclear who forged these documents, they were accepted as authentic by the Turkish police and judiciary, even after evidence emerged about their dubious nature. According to a book written by a Turkish journalist later jailed for making these accusations, the Gulen Movement was a strong force in the police and judiciary at the time.

Dozens of senior members of the military and media critical of the AKP were subsequently given sham trials and convicted of supporting the planned coup. Gulen-owned media supported these prosecutions and actively encouraged the jailing of the government’s opponents, based on the thin available evidence.

As for its work abroad, Gulen-affiliated organizations effectively became an extension of the Turkish foreign service, paying for politicians, academics, and other influential figures from the United States and elsewhere to visit Turkey, and lobbying for Turkish interests and positions in other countries.

Thanks to these efforts, by 2011, the AKP dominated Turkish politics, having displaced the country’s old secular elite, while the Gulen Movement controlled the country’s civil society. But, with other opponents and organizations defeated, the AKP began to view the Gulen Movement not as an ally, but as a potential threat to its power.

The Break-up of the Alliance

The fallout between the two groups began in 2013. That summer, the Gulen Movement released statements in support of the Gezi protests. In response, the AKP government threatened to shut down the organization’s private test-prep schools, which were one of its primary business interests in the country.

The Movement mostly likely made its first, significant move against the AKP in December 2013, when high-level government officials were implicated in an investigation into millions of dollars in graft and money laundering. The AKP struck back and quashed the investigation. Ever since, the party has been systematically prosecuting police, judges, and journalists associated with the Movement, as well as taking over companies affiliated with the Movement.

The AKP government has even gone so far as to reverse many of the sentences handed down during the coup trials, admitting that the evidence used to convict the accused was indeed false, but that the Gulen Movement was the sole instigator and mastermind behind the prosecutions.

Gulen, the United States, and Turkey

Because of the fall out between the Gulen Movement and the AKP government, Gulen is now a wanted man in Turkey. The Turkish government has repeatedly asked the United States to extradite Gulen to the country to face, among others, charges of forming an armed organization and attempting to overthrow the government. These charges are, of course, patently absurd. But, like the government’s ongoing war against the Kurdish guerrilla organization, the PKK, in Turkey’s south, the AKP’s conflict with the Movement is a (far less deadly) manufactured affair, which has been perpetuated, in part, to distract from some of the country’s ongoing, unaddressed problems such as the threat posed by ISIS and the stagnating economy.

Despite its best efforts, it is unlikely the AKP will be able to eliminate the Gulen Movement’s influence in Turkey. Because of its religious influence and the legitimacy it has built for itself over the years, the Movement will be able to weather the destruction of some or most of its secular (business, media, etc.) superstructure. When the AKP’s political dominance finally recedes, however many years or decades in the future that may be, the Gulen Movement will likely be poised and ready to rebuild its political, economic, and social influence in Turkey.